Walter M. Miller Jr.

A Canticle For Leibowitz

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A Canticle For Leibowitz Summary

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American author Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz takes place at a Catholic monastery in the Southwestern United States in the aftermath of a nuclear war. The 1960 post-apocalyptic novel covers thousands of years of reconstruction as civilization tries to reemerge. The monks of a fictional Catholic order, the Albertian Order of Leibowitz attempt to preserve what remains of mankind’s scientific knowledge until which time, if any, the world is able to utilize it once more. Three stories that Miller published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction serve as the basis for A Canticle for Leibowitz, the only novel the author saw published in his lifetime. A posthumous follow-up titled Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was released in 1997. The original novel was awarded the 1961 Hugo Award as best science fiction novel and was inspired by the World War II event in which the Allied forces bombed a monastery at Monte Cassino, south of Rome.

Six hundred years after the end of the twentieth century and after the repeated destruction of mankind in nuclear warfare ultimately known as the “Flame Deluge,” a Catholic monastery embarks on an eighteen-century long attempt to protect the legacy of human knowledge which was rejected in a period known as the Simplification. During the Simplification, books were destroyed and illiteracy became widespread. Leibowitz is a former weapons scientist who, along with some followers, establishes the monastery. He is deemed a martyr and, in the twenty-sixth century, is nominated for canonization. The world at large has reverted to a traditional hunter-gatherer economic system and the Catholic Church is struggling to maintain its status in the world. In the twenty-sixth century, seventeen-year-old Francis Gerard along with other novices are in the desert on a vocational retreat during Lent in order to eventually be able to join the Albertian Order of Leibowitz. A stranger shows Francis a fallout shelter from long ago.

Among other relics in the shelter, Francis finds documents written by Leibowitz centuries ago. This discovery leads to controversy at the monastery where Francis’ story of the stranger is embellished and rumors circulate that the stranger, or “Wanderer,” was a spirit of Leibowitz. Some doubt that the meeting ever happened especially since it was not witnessed by anyone else. Abbot Arkos who heads the monastery fears that so many relics appearing in such a short time might delay the canonization of Leibowitz. Francis is then sent back to the desert to finish his vigil and also to divert attention from the controversy. By the end of this section of the book Francis is professed and becomes a copyist. For fifteen years he works copying the manuscript he found in the shelter and is invited to the canonization in Rome. On the way he is robbed of the illumination but not of the original which he is able to give to the Pope. When returning from Rome, he is killed by an arrow and buried by the same stranger he met in the desert.

The timeframe moves up to A.D. 3174 and the order is still protecting the knowledge from before the Flame Deluge and the time of Simplification. A secular scholar named Thon Taddeo Pfarentrott is sent to the abbey by Mayor Hannegan of Texarkana who is his cousin. Thon has been compared to Galileo and is interested in the items being preserved by the monks. He makes some discoveries and asks if the “Memorabilia” can be moved to Texarkana. The Abbot denies the request telling him that he can continue to study it at the abbey. Thon remarks that it could take decades to finish analyzing all of it. Hannegan meanwhile is playing political games in order to gain control of the entire region. Actions involving Hannegan and Monsignor Apollo who is connected to Hannegan’s court lead to Apollo’s execution and the excommunication of Hannegan.

The final section of the book takes place in the year 3781. Nuclear energy and nuclear weapons are again available along with space travel and space colonies. A fifty-year cold war is going on between The Atlantic Confederacy and the Asian Coalition, the superpowers now in existence. The mission of the Leibowitz order has expanded to include all knowledge. Threats of a nuclear war exist followed by an incident between the two superpowers. During a cease fire that follows, some of the monks secretly go to Rome with the hope of fleeing Earth on a starship before the end of the cease fire. War ultimately erupts near the abbey leading to, among other events, the death of the head abbot. Several of the monks escape what seems to be the inevitability of another apocalypse, following a period in which science seemed to be experiencing a renaissance, providing optimism for the future.